Karima Christmas comes through
Senior is "beast on the boards" as Duke and All-American Jasmine Thomas struggle
DURHAM, N.C. -- It was the kind of game you tend to get in the early days of December. It was also the kind of game you need to win if you want to be on the court in the early days of April.
All of the normal arena musical standards play during breaks in the action at Cameron Indoor Stadium, top-40 songs from some year, if not necessarily this one, carefully constructed around smoothed out edges, catchy hooks and consistent beats. A better soundtrack for No. 5 Duke and No. 7 Texas A&M would have been built on discordant sounds, the whine of feedback or the atonal mysteries of some avant-garde composition.
It was choppy, grinding and in your face, a jumble that resolved itself once and for all only when Duke's Karima Christmas picked off a pass with seconds remaining to preserve a 61-58 win for the Blue Devils.
And it was entirely compelling despite itself.
"This was between those two boxers that won't face each other, Pacquiao and Mayweather," Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. "This is what it was. And I love playing teams like that."
Duke won despite shooting 30.9 percent for the game, and just 26.7 percent in the second half. It won despite hitting only 17 field goals and turning over the ball 18 times. It won despite Jasmine Thomas suffering through a 5-of-15 shooting night with seven turnovers. And it won when it could just as easily have lost; a Danielle Adams open jumper from the baseline was all that stood between Texas A&M and a lead inside the game's final 10 seconds.
As both coaches alluded after the fact, it was the kind of game that happens when talented teams are still closer to the preseason than the postseason -- their physical ability still steps ahead of the polish and poise earned over long winter months. But the thing is, it was also the kind of game that tends to mark the final stages of the postseason, when the playing field is leveled again, all those teams that wasted too much of the preceding months are sent home and the four, eight or 16 teams that remain find themselves forced again to rely on effort and physics.
That's a style that suits Duke just fine in principle, but it's also the kind of game in which the Blue Devils came up short over the final three minutes of last season's regional final against Baylor. In this instance, the Blue Devils were going to play Albany next whether they beat Texas A&M by three points or lost by 18 points, as happened in College Station when the teams met last season. But winning the way they did, seizing the lead in the first half with a 16-0 run, giving it back early in the second half and trading opportunities to take command down the stretch, is something that might linger.
"There's just a physicality that you have to learn to dictate first," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "Style of play can definitely be different for teams, but being intense and tough and physical -- those are the teams that go to the Final Four. Those are the teams that have success. That's a pretty common thread. So you can argue all you want about style of play but if you can't be physical, if you can't rebound and you can't make stops on defense and certainly make plays with your toughness on offense, then you can't move in that NCAA tournament. Because it's six games, and there's always at least one game where that ball does not fall in very easily. And you've got to be able to pull out that game.
Karima [Christmas] is just absolutely critical because she is so physically capable. And when she's in attack mode, there's nobody better. When she's going after it out there, 11 rebounds is not at all surprising. Frankly, she could probably get 15 to 18 rebounds; she's a pretty special player. She's got incredible physical gifts, and when she matches that mental tenacity with the physical gifts, then I would put her up against anybody.” -- Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie
"This was one of those kind of games that you've got to be able to pull out in order to advance."
Jasmine Thomas hit the biggest shot of all, going one-on-one against a game Sydney Carter for the final 10 seconds of the shot clock with less than a minute to play in the game and finally creating just enough separation to knock down a jumper from near the free-throw line. But Duke's star on the night wasn't its All-American.
"Karima Christmas was just -- she was just a beast on the boards the whole night," Blair said. "We could not block her out, and you give a lot of credit to that kid. We were able to get into transition by getting the defensive boards early, and that's how we were scoring [in taking a 22-12 lead] because they were sending four to the boards and we were beating them down the court."
Christmas finished with 11 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and a block, a veritable symphony of numbers on a night when they were hard to come by. Both Jasmine Thomas and Krystal Thomas carry plenty of name recognition, but Duke's other senior starter is an equal partner. McCallie talked after the game about using her depth and trying different looks with different people, but Christmas is as much a constant on the court as the inside-outside Thomas partnership.
"Karima is just absolutely critical because she is so physically capable," McCallie said. "And when she's in attack mode, there's nobody better. When she's going after it out there, 11 rebounds is not at all surprising. Frankly, she could probably get 15 to 18 rebounds; she's a pretty special player. She's got incredible physical gifts, and when she matches that mental tenacity with the physical gifts, then I would put her up against anybody. I have great confidence in her. She'll play a ton of minutes when she's rebounding like that, because she can basically determine games with her effort."
Of course, the real magic for Duke isn't the individual components but the sum of the parts. Individually, the nine players who played significant minutes put up six or seven sketchy offensive lines, Christmas and Shay Shelby perhaps the lone exceptions. But collectively, the defense they played stifled a Texas A&M team that entered the game shooting nearly 45 percent and averaging better than 76 points per game. Duke's pressure was eviscerated when the teams played last season, but with a steady diet of different defensive looks, including a 3-2 zone that Blair cited as a key factor, it fared far better this time around.
"They're big," Blair said. "They just stretch out, stretch out. You can't lob over it; we have to bounce pass it in against the zone. We were not doing a good job at all because our guards were 30 feet from the basket instead of about 19 [feet], 9 [inches] trying to run the offense. We'll work on that. We see that size in the Big 12 as well, but Duke is by far the best team we've played. They're very good."
And so is Texas A&M, which endured a miserable shooting night for Danielle Adams and foul trouble for Sydney Colson to come within a few inches of winning. It was, as Blair said and McCallie hopes, a game worthy of the later rounds of the NCAA tournament. Maybe it wasn't beautiful music, but it was worth watching.
"I hope we can keep this series going because this is special," Blair said. "To come into this house and play with so many great players and games that have been played here -- I'm an old history buff. This is the Boston Garden, this is Wrigley Field, this is Fenway Park. This is what it's about."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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